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Toyotas' sudden acceleration blamed for more deaths

Including a recent surge of complaints, the defect has been raised as a possible cause of 102 fatalities, according to NHTSA records, lawsuits and police reports.

March 26, 2010|By Stuart Pfeifer

More than 100 deaths have now been blamed on sudden acceleration of Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles, nearly twice the number that had been reported two months ago, according to a Times review of public records.

With a recent surge of complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration factored in, sudden acceleration has been raised as a possible cause of crashes involving Toyota vehicles that led to 102 deaths, according to NHTSA records, lawsuits and police reports.

Toyota has recalled millions of vehicles to repair defects it said could in rare instances cause gas pedals to stick. The company insists the electronic throttle control system in its newer vehicles is not to blame.

"It is normal to see an increase in complaints following the kind of publicity that this issue has taken on," Toyota spokesman John Hanson said Thursday. "We are diligently going to investigate all of these claims. We are doing it with more people and we are doing it as quickly as we can.

"We have found no evidence at all of any electronic problem that could have led to unintended acceleration."

The new numbers prompted a call for a thorough investigation of each fatality reported to the federal government in connection with the Toyota problems.

"People who were involved in crashes are saying, 'Look, I've always thought there was something wrong.' Now they're coming forward and saying, 'There was a crash that we believed to be sudden acceleration,' " said Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington.

Ditlow said he expected the number of deaths possibly related to sudden acceleration to grow to several hundred in the coming months. The federal government and Toyota should investigate every one of them, he said.

"Some of them will turn out to be something else. Unless you do the investigation, you're never going to know," Ditlow said.

Department of Transportation spokeswoman Olivia Alair said NHTSA officials review all complaints and "take reports of injuries and deaths extremely seriously."

"Right now, the agency is working to get to the bottom of the unintended acceleration issue by undertaking a new review of possible causes, including potential electromagnetic interference," Alair said.

Courts and police agencies have not blamed Toyota in any of the reported fatalities.

The complaints on file are simply allegations that defects may have caused the cars to suddenly accelerate before fatal crashes. Lawsuits have been filed against Toyota in several of the cases, but it could take years before juries decide whether Toyota was to blame.

The Times reported last month that sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles had been blamed in at least 56 deaths through the end of January.

Some of the new reports were from Toyota owners who said their cars accelerated on their own, causing fatal crashes; most were from families of dead motorists who said they want the government to determine whether sudden acceleration caused the crashes.

One recent complaint was made Feb. 16 by Barbara Green of Stamford, Conn. She said her son, Blazej Ignatowicz, was killed Dec. 1, 2006, when his 2000 Toyota Solara raced to 100 mph in a New Britain, Conn., residential neighborhood, causing him to lose control and crash into some trees.

"I knew from the beginning there was something wrong with the car," Green said in an interview. "As soon as I heard the news [about sudden acceleration complaints] I was like, 'Here we go. Now I know what happened.' "

The 2000 Solara did not have the electronic throttle system that some have suggested is responsible for sudden acceleration. That model has not been subject to any of the Toyota recalls.

Many of the recent complaints involved crashes from several years ago and were filed only after Toyota announced its recalls.

Public concern about sudden acceleration was triggered by an incident last year that killed veteran California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor and three of his relatives near San Diego.

The family was in a 2009 Lexus ES 350 that had been lent to them by a dealership when the car accelerated out of control and crashed. Saylor's frantic efforts to stop the car were captured in a 911 emergency call made by his brother-in-law, Chris Lastrella, a passenger in the car. The Lexus ES 350 was one of several models later recalled by Toyota to replace floor mats that could cause the gas pedals to stick.

Toyota recalled several other models to repair gas pedals it also said could stick.

Others have speculated that Toyota's electronic throttle system -- in which a computer transmits the driver's gas pedal pressure to the engine's throttle -- was to blame. Before the company made the switch several years ago a cable had connected the pedal directly to the throttle.

Hanson, the Toyota spokesman, said the company is confident that its vehicles are safe.

"Our sympathy goes out to any family that has had a fatality in one of our vehicles. . . . We will continue to investigate and we have said we're very confident we will not find anything wrong with our electronic system," he said. "That doesn't mean we won't keep looking. NHTSA will keep looking. Third parties will keep looking."

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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